With me, it seems to happen frequently that when I start writing on a theme, related articles cross my path. They may magically appear on one of the daily and weekly newsletters I read, or on one of the websites I routinely visit. Of course, sometimes I am actively searching for information on the topic, but often the articles just seem to come find me.
Such was the case last week. As I was writing about the concept of “hire slowly, fire quickly”, there was a Fast Company piece in my news feed that echoed some of my central points. The article is written by James Green, CEO of the digital advertising company Magnetic. Green was once hired by his business hero, Steve Jobs, to work at Pixar Animation Studios. His article discusses some of the lessons he gleaned from Jobs, including some things not to do. You can see the entire article here
Green says that one of the significant takeaways from his Pixar experience was about hiring, and another about firing. He writes that one should pay “incredible attention” to what the potential hire wants to do, and thus make sure it corresponds with the job the company is offering. In other words, take the time to get to know the individual, and make sure he or she is the right fit for the company and the position in question. Thus, we should think about hiring more slowly.
And, when it turns out that the fit is not there, fix the problem rapidly. As Green puts it: “If someone isn’t working out in the position you hired him or her for, it rarely turns around. If the fit is wrong, as a leader you should end it quickly, but not aggressively, and don’t make it about the person. I remember when I walked out the door he said, ‘Life is long and I’m sure our paths will cross again.’ And sure enough, Steve and I stayed in touch.”
Essentially, Green is saying that one must learn to fire quickly, even that one must be willing to part with a good person when the job fit turns out not to be right. Some of Green’s other points make good sense as well. In particular, keep in mind that ending something quickly does not mean doing it harshly or aggressively. And, avoid making any firing personal by focusing instead on the absence of fit between the job and the individual.
Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and most of us who have hired significant numbers of people have at times exercised poor judgement in this area. One of the things I have discovered about outstanding leaders is that they are not necessarily better than the rest of us at hiring decisions, but rather that they are willing and able recognize errors and fix them quickly.
I once read a story about the early years of Microsoft, when Bill Gates was a young entrepreneur learning to manage. As the company was growing rapidly, he decided that they should have a COO, and he hired James Towne, an executive from an electronics company in Oregon. When it turned out that Towne was not an effective manager in the software environment, and that the programmers did not respect him, Gates moved quickly and replaced him with Jon Shirley, a Radio Shack veteran who understood more about computers and software.
Two early employees I knew at Microsoft told me that this was the single characteristic that made Gates an effective leader, despite some of his other flaws. He had a rare ability to identify a mistake, to focus intently on solving the problem, and to deal with it expeditiously.
While this all sounds simple, I would contend that this is a skill that most managers and leaders do not develop enough. When we hire the wrong person, most of us have a tendency to justify our choice, or to engage in some form of wishful thinking. We tell ourselves that it may work out in the end, that the person may be capable of “growing into the job”. Such hesitation, when our gut is telling us that the individual just does not feel right for the position, can put a damper on company growth, and also on employee morale.